Good order and discipline

If you were around during the 1970s and ’80s, you undoubtedly remember the hit television show “M*A*S*H.” And, I’m sure, you remember the cross-dressing Klinger, who clearly was willing to go to any lengths to get a Section 8 psychiatric discharge from the army. Back in the 1950s, when the Korean War was fought, Section 8 discharges were commonly given if you were guilty of “sexual perversion,” which included, but was not limited to, cross-dressing and transsexualism. Of course, Klinger’s efforts were completely unsuccessful, and he remained at the 4077th for the duration of the show.

Today, Section 8 no longer exists in military parlance. And the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” allows lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicepeople to serve openly in the military. But even today, a person who violates the gender binary in any way faces steep military consequences – because the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (a law which focused specifically on sexual orientation, and which never applied to trans* and gender-nonconforming people in the first place) does nothing to protect them.

Although repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a challenge, allowing lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to serve in the military doesn’t fundamentally challenge the gender binary. However, dismantling the policy firewalls that prevent trans* and intersex people from serving would involve shattering the entire institutional structure of the military – a structure that, for centuries, has rested on the foundation of masculine power. Preserving that foundation involves policing any transgressions of the gender binary – and people whose gender identity transgresses the boundary between “male” and “female” are considered to be a medical and/or a psychological aberration of nature (a particularly effective form of social policing).

Consider the following military policies:

  • Medical restrictions. According to Army Recruiting Regulation 601-210, people who are intersex are banned from enlisting. The Marine Corps Military Personnel Procurement Manual contains a similar ban against intersex individuals. And researchers at the Michael D. Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara were told by Navy and Air Force recruiters that “being a hermaphrodite was a medical disqualification.” Interestingly, they didn’t use the word intersex – instead, they specifically chose to use the word that many people in the intersex community consider to be highly pathologizing. Furthermore, according to Army Regulation 40-501, transpeople who have undergone sex reassignment surgery, as well as intersex people who have been subjected to gender-normalizing surgery, are banned from the military:  “Major abnormalities and defects of the genitalia such as a change of sex….” constitutes a disqualifying medical defect. And Air Force Regulation 160-43 states that “major abnormalities and defects of the genitalia such as change of sex, a history thereof, or complications . . . residual to surgical corrections of these conditions” prohibit a person from serving in that branch.
  • Psychiatric restrictions.  Army Regulation 40-501 states that “current or history of psychosexual conditions, including but not limited to transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias, do not” meet the standards for psychological fitness. Even more powerful than that is Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which serves as the foundation of military law. Article 134 prohibits all gender-nonconforming behaviors such as cross-dressing – and it gives the military broad power to discharge service members for any behavior seen as “prejudicial to good order and discipline.”
  • Veteran status. The VA doesn’t recognize the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Care, nor does it offer sex reassignment surgery. According to a 2007 report commissioned by the Palm Center, which was based on 827 surveys completed by U.S. military veterans and active-service personnel, 97% were unable to transition until after leaving the military; about 1/3 who had used the VA hospital had broached the subject of medical gender transition with the VA staff – and almost all requests were denied; and fully 10% had been denied services completely at the VA because they were transgender.

In a nutshell, what all branches of the military are saying is this:

  • If your genitalia is non-normative, you are medically unfit to serve.
  • If your gender presentation is non-normative, you are psychologically unfit to serve.
  • If, after your active duty is over, you exhibit gender-nonconforming behavior (particularly if it involves a gender transition), don’t expect to be entitled to the full range of military benefits typically afforded to veterans.

If you think about it, the military uses medical and psychiatric diagnosis very effectively in order to keep gender nonconformity out of its ranks. There’s something wrong with you, they say. And as a result, you are unfit to serve.

But there’s a gaping hole in that argument – a hole so obvious it’s easy to miss. That hole is in the very foundation of military law –  the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Article 134 gives military officials sweeping powers to discharge service members for any behavior seen as a threat to “good order and discipline.” This code isn’t saying there’s something wrong with you. Rather, what it’s saying is, Keep quiet. Don’t rock the boat. Behave yourself, and keep good order and discipline.

I often think about how reframing the problem allows us to consider issues from an entirely different perspective. Gender nonconformity isn’t the problem. The problem involves people’s reactions to gender nonconformity. Just like homosexuality isn’t a problem – but homophobia is a huge problem. What if, instead of using medical and psychiatric restrictions to ban gender-nonconforming people from service, the military clamped down hard on transphobic, dehumanizing, oppressive behaviors?

In many ways, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a good thing. But it wasn’t enough – and frankly, I wish the LGBTQIA community could have stood in strong unifying solidarity, arguing for the repeal of DADT and for the elimination of all gender-oppressive military policies.

This Memorial Day, I reflect on the possibilities that acceptance, unity, and inclusivity offer to us. And I honor those who have served openly, and those who have served (and continue to serve) in silence.



Filed under coming out, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, intersex, psychological research, transgender, transphobia

5 responses to “Good order and discipline

  1. Gary Hollander

    Oh, Gayle, as always a timely and thoughtful post. I remain impressed by the consistency of your labor of love.

    Two items come to mind as I read your post today, one most specific to the topic and hand; the other relates to BSA. You write, “If you think about it, the military uses medical and psychiatric diagnosis very effectively in order to keep gender nonconformity out of its ranks. There’s something wrong with you, they say. And as a result, you are unfit to serve.”

    First, I believe that this use of physical exclusion and psychological distancing around gender expression is parallel to that used for racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia. I believe that it was Joseph Barndt that wrote about this related to race. Underpinning this practice is the perspective that queer people, disabled people, women, and people of color are scary, crazy, and dangerous. And, right now, today I will cop to the fact that some days I am when I am faced with the exclusion and diagnosis as mad. Stephen Colbert recently interviewed Congresswoman Gwen Moore as “an angry Black woman.” A little angrier and she would risk incarceration in an institution of some sort, NOT because she is angry, but because she is a Black woman. In short, diagnoses are used to keep us in check.

    Why keep us in check? Because our very presence makes others squirely about their unfinished psychic material. Didn’t get through that sexual attraction to your high school buddy? Exclude that scary gay guy today. Feel out of sorts about your desire to wear something soft and silky? Push that transgender person into treatment.

    Second, your post reminds me about the BSA. This was not a week for celebration. BSA is duplicitous in its decision, reluctantly allowing gender normative gay youth into scouting with no inside assurances that they will have access to helpful role models of gay adults. In fact, these boys will be participating in a group that overtly expresses through policy that gay adults are untrustworthy. They do this change in policy without the counsel of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, or the National Association of Social Workers. Their own press release takes note of homosexual youth. Homosexual. In 2013. Seriously.

    No, I am pretty sure that several conservative religious leaders were consulted on this move. I am also fairly confident that fund developers and stock brokers were consulted. BSA deserves badges in failed integrity, greed, and discrimination.

    But as you noted, Gayle, the broader LGBT leadership feels content with the overturn or DADT, just as they rushed to applaud BSA for codifying (with “no further discussion”) limits to my rights and yours.

  2. I agree that, regarding BSA, this was not a week for celebration. If anything, allowing gay youth to participate without the benefit of visible role models (and an overall ethos of inclusivity and acceptance) is more dangerous than the previous policy. If a pre-teen Boy Scout begins to question his sexuality, clearly there won’t be anyone within the BSA ranks that can provide any substantive support based on his own experience.

    When I was in graduate school, one of the books I read was a text called Subversive Dialogues, by a feminist therapist named Laura Brown. That book changed my life (at least my professional life), in that she provided a feminist and social justice interpretation of the diagnostic process. While she noted that diagnosis can sometimes be liberating (it’s helpful to know what it is that you have, so you can move forward in dealing with it), diagnosis often is used, to borrow your words, to “keep people in check” – especially people who violate normativity by existing on the margins. The military is a powerful institution, and people need to conform to the rules of the institution, no matter how oppressive those rules might be.

    Thanks for reading, Gary! I always appreciate your thoughtful commentary.

  3. Gary, Gayle —

    I agree with you, generally, about the BSA but, of course, straight male and closeted gay male Scout leaders can be effective role models for boys,and young men who are BSA members, whatever their emerging sexuality. Thankfully, we can have role models in many different spheres of our lives — we are not dependent on any one of them to model everything for us.

    – Keith

    • Of course, a range of people, regardless of sexual orientation, can be very effective leaders and role models. However, I think that gay male Scout leaders who are forced into the closet per BSA policy are compromised in their ability to be effective. It’s not their fault, and it’s not that they’re inherently ineffective – it’s the policy that prevents them from being their most available, authentic selves.

      Case in point (an analogy, obviously, since I was never a Boy Scout): My first doctoral training practicum was in the counseling center at a Catholic college in the Bay Area. I was out and open about my sexuality, and no one ever told me I couldn’t be. However, my supervisor, who was a lesbian, was prohibited from disclosing her sexual orientation to her clients. (I’m not sure where this directive came from – but eventually she ended up leaving the counseling center.) She was a highly skilled clinican, and in many ways she was a great supervisor. However, as an out queer therapist working with both queer and straight clients, there were clinical and ethical issues that arose that I needed guidance on, and she couldn’t give me advice based on personal experience. Had she been able to be out and open about her sexuality, she would have been a far more effective role model for me. I think the same is true for queer youth in the Boy Scouts – if gay male leaders could be out and open, that could be such an opportunity for guidance and role modeling. On the flip side, if a leader who is gay sees one of his Scouts struggling with his sexuality, that leader is essentially straitjacketed from sharing his own experience in order to give that Scout some hope and direction.

  4. Kailana alaniz

    I am an Intersex veteran and even though I had some issues during service ; just before deployment in 1991, after cheek swab and two drops of blood for DNA records incase of death, I was only questioned about if I was gay. That’s all the medical were worried about. I honestly didn’t find out any more information until 1993 during MRI examination for a lower back injury. That was around April 26 93. Karyotyping was ordered a week later and reported to me in June 1993. I am infantry by the way, and the last time I looked there were 4others or so Intersex veterans acknowledged to have served in the USARMY. seriously the military will take any person if that person us deemed fit and of use to them. There are restrictions for many issue’s that limit many Intersex people from enlisting but that does not mean that every Intersex person is barred from serving.

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